Service-Based Application Development From a Single Source (Part 2)

Feature Article | March 12, 2008 by Dr. Andreas Schaffry

Part 1

The layer architecture deployed in SAP NetWeaver CE enables composite applications to be created, implemented, and adapted to new process requirements. One of the first applications that SAP will supply to customers based on the new platform is the Composite Application for Return Merchandise Authorization (RMA). RMA is aimed at companies that accept returned goods. These include for example the manufacturing and consumer goods industry.

In many companies the returns process used to be largely paper-based and manual. This resulted in media breaks and non-transparent processes. Manufacturers had difficulty determining whether a returned item was still in goods inward, being inspected, in the repair shop or maybe even on its way back to the customer. The consequence was lower customer satisfaction as manufacturers were unable to provide information on the current status of the returned item.

The RMA composite application was developed in line with concrete customer requirements and fulfils all criteria and standards that apply to SAP software products. These include multi-lingual capability, dedicated documentation, and an operating concept that includes the structure and operation of the IT infrastructure, security concepts, and IT service management processes. RMA is currently being rolled out to customers via the ramp-up process.

More transparency on returns handling

The composite application is used by manufacturers to take control of the returns processes initiated by their customers and to manage them automatically and with no media breaks on the basis of portal-based workflows. All processes connected to a return are thus transparent and traceable for the manufacturers.

The current processing status of a returned item can be viewed at any time – from the acceptance of the goods through the repair shop up to shipping to the customer. This firstly improves the access to information for customers and secondly allows manufacturers to structure internal service processes more efficiently and cost-effectively.

From process step to process step

RMA expands the functions of SAP ERP without requiring time-consuming and costly adaptations and enhancements in the backend. The composite application retrieves all necessary information from the customer, material and machine master data, offers, customer and repair orders in SAP ERP – in technical terms these are deployed by the ERP software as reusable enterprise services. To achieve this RMA accesses a total of 14 enterprise services.

The interface descriptions for these are stored in the central Enterprise Services Repository (ESR), a component of SAP NetWeaver CE. The involved enterprise services include “Find Customer”, “Read Customer”, “Find Material”, “Read Material”, “Find Equipment”, “Read Equipment”, “Find Production Order”, “Find Purchase Order” or “Create Vendor Return”.

These and other enterprise services have been logically combined by SAP in the “Customer Service Execution” enterprise services bundle and documented in the Enterprise Service Wiki (ES Wiki), which can be accessed in the SAP Developer Network (SDN). The enterprise services bundle is a logical combination of enterprise services that map the business scenario for service processes between customer and manufacturer. The enterprise services themselves are physically supplied to customers via the SAP enhancement packages for SAP ERP 6.0.

Further, RMA contains additional business logic to manage the returns process, in particular the collaboration between the participating users at the manufacturer and the customer, independently of the ERP system. All necessary data is stored in the composite application in the form of a local RMA business object and saved in the SAP NetWeaver CE database. A corresponding service notification is generated in SAP ERP only when a returns process has been successful.

SAP NetWeaver Portal and Web Dynpro Java were used to design the RMA user interfaces. SAP Interactive Forms by Adobe were employed to replicate form-based processes for offline communication with customers. The process steps are defined and coordinated via guided procedures and initiated via “work items” that are stored in the Universal Worklist (UWL) of SAP NetWeaver Portal.

If a service employee logs on to the portal and clicks a work item stored in the UWL, the composite application is launched. In order to retrieve information on a specific returns procedure or to process this further, RMA provides the service employee with search functions – for instance by customer or RMA number – via the portal. In this way he can determine the current processing status of a returns process. All returns are listed by RMA number. Further information such as the last edit date, error description and customer name and number is also stored.

Forms straight to the desktop

The RMA process consists of six process steps: “Send returns form to the manufacturer and request returns number (RMA number)”, “Confirm returns request and send automatically generated RMA number to customer”, “Send return item with RMA number to the manufacturer”, “Goods-in check of the return”, “Inspection of the returned item” and as a last step “Further planning, if required conduct repair and complete RMA process”.

In practice this works as follows: If a customer wants to return a defective component to the manufacturer for repair, he requests a returns number via e-mail with an attached electronic form. As soon as the employee in the manufacturer’s service department logs on to the portal, he receives a worklist of all requested returns numbers. He checks the data for each returns request and confirms the customer request for returning the faulty component. However, he can also reject the return in the composite application. In this case, the customer is automatically notified by e-mail.

If the return is confirmed, however, RMA automatically generates a unique returns number for the corresponding component. This may be supplied in the form of a bar code, for example. The service employee then sends the customer an e-mail with an interactive and personalized electronic returns form as a PDF. This contains the returns number and the correct manufacturer delivery address for this component.

The customer then simply prints out the form with the RMA number, attaches it to the faulty component and sends both back to the manufacturer. When the component is received by the manufacturer, an employee in goods inward identifies the return using the RMA number and confirms the receipt via the composite application. In the further course of the returns process the return is identified and tracked via the unique RMA number at all times.

Testing and evaluation

RMA then passes the information from goods inward to an inspector who checks the goods in the maintenance shop. He enters the test result into a special text box and concludes the process. The service employee is automatically notified and evaluates the test result. He then specifies further work steps, such as exchange, repair, warranty processing or return without a repair. All follow-up processes, such as the creation of a repair order, credit notes or invoicing, are no longer part of RMA.

However, customers can add these components to the composite application as they wish. The prerequisite is that the necessary enterprise services are available in SAP ERP. Further, the integration of logistics companies and suppliers into the returns handling procedure creates a fully integrated process flow along the entire supply chain. This occurs with the use of enterprise services that are contained in the “Customer Service Execution” enterprise services bundle and other enterprise services bundles. The interplay of such scenarios demonstrates the significant commercial benefit of an enterprise service-orientated architecture (enterprise SOA).

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